Selling retirement in financial planning advertisements.
There are two perennial questions about retirement -- What is it, and how can one achieve it? -- whose answers are related and shift across time. Nowadays, the ends and means of retirement need to be considered within a cultural context that maps retirement as a "given" of the life course (Kohli, 1986). Surveys show that most workers expect to retire, and that large majorities of men and women are willing to project the exact age or date of that transition (Ekerdt, Kosloski, & DeViney, 2000; National Public Radio, 1999).
But what is this stage of life? As a retiree, what will one be and do? The role ambiguity of retirement came in for early comment in gerontology. Burgess (1960) called it a "roleless role." Parsons (1942) said retirees had "a peculiarly functionless situation, cut off from participation in the most important interests and activities of society" (p. 616). Contemporary retirees, when led into reflective interviews, will also note the ambiguity of retirement: one is free, but marginal (Savishinsky, 2000; Weiss, 1995). Yet, norms do seem to be developing that retirees should have more than an "ex-" identity (Ebaugh, 1988), left -- and left out -- to do as they please. The involvements of retired life remain discretionary, but there is a growing expectation that one's days be full and active (Bernard & Phillipson, 1995; Ekerdt, 1986) and devoted to personal fulfillment and development of the self (Laslett, 1989).
To achieve this stage of life, one must replace the income that came from work. The historic problem of how to do this has been met for many workers by the provision of Social Security income, employers' pensions, and employers' contributions to tax-deferred accounts. These arrangements have democratized retirement -- made it widely available and, importantly, conceivable across adulthood. But these benefits of employment may not yield enough income to assure a comfortable standard of living (for that pursuit of personal fulfillment), or security against costs of health care, or a legacy to pass to one's heirs. The more that people anticipate retirement to be a long period of comfortable consumption, the more wealth they must assemble to underwrite it. State pensions make a modest retirement available to most workers, but more expansive ideas require some initiative to bring about. One does not retire rich as a matter of course.
When American workers ponder their preparation for retirement, surveys reveal that they are somewhat confident about their financial readiness, yet significant proportions of the public remain anxious about their prospects or unable to save (AARP, 1999; Employee Benefit Research Institute, 1999; National Public Radio, 1999). Objective assessments of retirement readiness suggest that American adults are overconfident in this regard, and many will need to engage in substantial saving to achieve a comfortable retirement (Employee Benefit Research Institute, 1999; Merrill Lynch, 1997; Mitchell & Moore, 1998).
Retirement is thus a stage of life, vague but desirable for its leisure possibilities, that takes some agency to achieve. One source that is bidding to define the nature of, and path to, retirement is the financial services industry, which consists of businesses that manage peoples' savings and investments. The well-aired financing problems of Social Security, the rise of investor-directed 401(k)-type savings vehicles, the retail proliferation of investment devices, and tax law changes have all led to a surge in the advertising of financial planning services on behalf of retirement (Pogrebin, 1998; Race is On to Sell Roth IRA, 1998; Sherman, 1997). The advertisers are competing for the attention of workers who participate in the kind of savings and pension arrangements that require them to directly manage the investment of their retirement savings. The sums involved are very large. In the US in 1997, over US$3 trillion in assets were held in defined contribution pension plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (US Bureau of the Census, 1999). Workers who participate in 401 (k) plans can accumulate substantial balances to invest. In 1998, individuals in their 60s with at least 30 years tenure with the current employer had average account balances in excess of US$185,000 (Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2000).
The essential task of advertising for retirement financial planning is to link, in the mind of the reader or viewer, ideas about retirement with the services being offered for sale. The goal of this paper is to examine both the ideas and the linking so as to articulate how commercial concerns contribute to the current cultural construction of retirement as a status-to-be-achieved. In general, advertising obviously functions to sell things, but it also functions to create structures of meaning (Williamson, 1978). Fulfilling this latter function, ads do not create reality so much as reflect back to us things we will recognize. According to Goldman (1992), "Advertisers draw sociocultural meanings from viewers' life-worlds and the mass media themselves, and embed these meanings in images, which are then returned to viewers -- now framed in relation to meanings of products, services, or corporate identities" (p. 61). They "isolate salient meanings from the context of daily life, and then stylistically rework those meanings to accommodate the sales agenda" (p. 68). To sell retirement financial planning, advertisers necessarily shape ideas of retirement toward a correlation with company interests.
Commercial signification about aging has its precedents. Calhoun (1978), for example, has traced the efforts of the real estate industry from the 1950s onward as it conjured a market for a "golden years" retirement, and then sold housing to satisfy the demand it had sparked for leisured withdrawal to resort-type locales. Other authors have characterized how marketers promote "positive aging," health, and promises of bodily integrity with numerous personal care products, diets, fitness regimes, and surgeries that purport to mask or retard advancing age (Hepworth & Featherstone, 1982; Sobchak, 1999; Wang, 1988). Such commodities as housing and rejuvenation techniques are intended for near-term consumption, and so are targeted to those middle-aged and older. But financial services that will accumulate a nest egg for retirement are a much longer term proposition, and require that marketing and taste-making for ideas of retirement push back up into the earlier reaches of adulthood. Representations about retirement must be presented to workers who are perhaps 20 or 30 years distant from the event.
Exhortations to "start saving now" provide an opportunity to examine the ways that a powerful industry promotes and characterizes retirement. Authoritative messages about the nature and course of later life are now being generated by the financial services industry, embedded in advertisements for financial planning and saving. What is this future, who is it for, and how does one get it? In the report that follows, we have used a sample of print advertisements to articulate: the nature of the retirement that the ads depict, who is the target audience of these efforts, and how the ads motivate readers to link ideas of retirement with company services.
We examined magazine advertisements that appeared during the years 1997 and 1998, surveying two newsweeklies (Time and US News & World Report) and three business and personal finance magazines (Business Week, Forbes, and Money). Many ads appeared on multiple occasions in these sources and in more than one magazine, for example, in both news and business magazines. We did not survey newspapers, but noted that the same magazine ads were also appearing concurrently in national dailies.
We included in our group of ads those items that made explicit reference to retirement or made mention of instruments for retirement saving, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans. Ads about general or specific investing, insurance products, or estate planning without reference to retirement were excluded (though these, too, may bring retirement to a reader's mind). Our interest was limited to advertisements that were directed to individual consumers, and so we excluded ads directed to employers about the establishment or administration of retirement plans.
In all, we identified 48 unique magazine ads for analysis, and these had been placed by 24 different advertisers, such as banks, investment businesses, and insurance or mutual fund companies. This was not the universe of advertising for retirement-related financial planning during 1997 and 1998, but it is a reasonable sample of what the reading public might have encountered. All of the ads were full page, with some two-page spreads. We also assembled a comparison sample of ads for 1988 from the same magazines and using the same criteria for inclusion.
We used methods of content analysis and inductive reasoning to develop categories and themes that organized the message of both text and graphics (Berg, 1998; Strauss, 1987). In this report, we have not identified specific advertisers by name, and so have used a blank line, to stand in for specific company names when quoting from ad texts.
The first part of our report considers the qualities and character that advertisers attribute to their readers (directly or indirectly using models) and that help us identify the preferred customers for retirement financial planning. Next, we describe the products, services, and corporate self-characterizations that are featured in the ads, which help us articulate what is for sale here. Then, we address the images of retirement to be found within, and, finally, how the argument is completed that financial planning is the sine qua non for retirement.
3.1. Depiction of the customer: "you"
Two thirds of the ads in our sample carded some picture or illustration of an idealized customer -- a model that is available for the reader to imagine as a person "like me." In this way, ads generally invite readers to recognize themselves as they are or might want to be. Of these 37 ads with a picture, 35 showed male models and 12 showed females, with some showing both. Women usually appeared as members of couples; only one ad showed a single, stand-alone female, while men were shown singly a majority of time. At most, three ads suggested that the female model had sole financial responsibility for planning retirement. Five ads surrounded single male models with other family members, such as elders or children; only one ad did likewise with a female model.
The apparent age of the models turned on whether the ad portrayed an image of retirement. One third (13) of the ads with pictures indicated somehow that the persons were retired; the age of models in the remaining ads appeared to range across adulthood, with a favor for middle-aged persons. Models were white in 33 of the 37 ads; the four others were single black males. No other racial diversity was shown.
Social class was encoded in the attire of the models, and in text commentary about these exemplars, as well as "you," the reader. The nonretired males commonly wore neckties and were shown in office or business settings; even when dressed in casual clothing, the models' sweaters and styled hair suggested comfortable circumstances. Only one ad -- this showing a man in an open-collared flannel shirt -- could be thought to depict a blue-collar worker. In addition, the leisure interests of working or retired models could also convey preferences for upscale consumption: rock-climbing, adventure tourism, and fly fishing in full regalia. Beyond pictures, the text of many ads also presumed a certain financial savvy by referring to "your" specific investment or savings instruments, or "your" financial advisor. A few ads supplied numbers: "Walter" with a net worth of US$1.68 million, "Jack" with a half-million dollars in one account and a "condo in Naples." One company's services required a portfolio of US$200,000 or more, and another ad was pitched to "affluent seniors."
Thus, from pictures at least, the model customer looked like a mature white male, an unaccompanied individual, who is or has been prosperously employed. The appeal to this market segment is not surprising. Businesses that profit from fees and commissions would obviously target individuals with larger portfolios.
Another significant depiction was carried by text allusions to "your" traits or those of the model. (All advertisements made some second-person address to the reader. Even those that depicted models who were planning or enjoying their retirement eventually turned to speak to "you" or "your future.") Williamson (1978) points out that "ads create an 'alreadyness' of 'facts' about ourselves as individuals" (p. 78). The language of advertising invites us to recognize ourselves as persons who buy or use the product. Products do not transform us, they confirm us.
In these ads, readers were endowed with three types of traits. First, the model/reader is provident and conscientious. One does not need to become foresighted about retirement -- "you" already are. "You've already listened to good advice. Don't stop now." The person who plans ahead is habitually hard working, discerning, responsible (as a college-tuition paying parent, as an adult child), disciplined, and serious. According to one ad: "You'd do anything for your children. You'd do anything for your parents. But sometimes you ask -- are you doing enough for your own retirement?" As a second set of traits, "you" are knowledgeably self-directed. You have a "time horizon," "risk tolerance," "investment objectives," "unique financial goals," and "strategy." In short, you already know what you want (whatever that may be in the case of retirement). A third, and quite different, set of traits casts the reader as playful and adventurous -- but this depiction is reserved for life in retirement. This tension between the responsible, earnest, and capable self of the present, and the playful self of the future merits further comment below.
These pictures and characterizations invite the reader to step into the ad. These models who are responsible, self-directed, and successful (at work or retirement) are apparent customers of the company, so you who have the same moral profile -- or wish you did -- should naturally be a customer, too.
3.2. Intangibles for sale
Except for one advertisement for a planning software, the advertisers here were not touting a physical entity but rather activities that they will undertake on the buyer's behalf. The top portion of Table 1 lists terms that were used in the ads to describe the various offerings.
Table 1 Selected content from retirement planning advertisements Terms for services and products: Annuities 401 (k) options Traditional IRAs Roth IRAs SEP IRAs Spousal IRAs IRA analysis Rollover service Mutual funds Life insurance Health plans Long-term care insurance CDs Retirement planning Investment strategies Tax planning Asset preservation Charitable giving Further examples of technical language: Variable annuity Portfolio Distributions Roth conversion Equities Volatility Risk tolerance Deductibility roles Partial conversion No-load Long-term capital growth Asset classes Asset rebalancing Asset allocation Diversification Dollar-cost averaging 12b-1 fees Assurances about managing complexity: Our expert advice simplifies complex financial matters. Investing without the mystery. Plain, straightforward language. Simplifying the rollover process. Growth. Plain and simple. Clear solutions in a complex world. Consolidating your money at -- makes it easy to manage. If you're feeling overwhelmed, it's time you joined the millions of investors who have turned to --. During your 20-minute IRA check-up, your -- professional will help you sort it all out. Count on -- to make planning for tomorrow easier than ever.
Though some ads featured a specific item (mutual fund, annuity, and software), the primary objective of all ads was to generate some contact with the company. Toll-free numbers, websites, and offers of brochures appeared as ways to connect customer and company. The ads, thus, are a portal to some later, individual sales session. Most ads hinted that they are listing only a sample of the company catalog, and use a general appeal to suggest the rest. They promote a "variety," "spectrum," "range," "family," or "broad array" of "tools," "solutions," "resources," "answers," "services," "options," "insight," "information," "advice," "assistance," "expertise," and "complete guidance." The cost of this consultation and money management -- fees or waiver of implied fees -- was a topic broached in only three ads.
The terms that described the services presume a financially sophisticated reader, as does other language found within. Further examples of specialized terms are listed in the middle of Table 1. The knowledgeable reader might be flattered by this vocabulary, and it is yet more evidence that these ads are targeted to people of means who know an equity from an annuity. At the same time, these terms might intimidate those who are unfamiliar with them, introducing anxiety about the matter of retirement planning.
By contacting the company, the ads assured readers that they would find solid competence in the matter of money management. Sometimes, this expertise was quantified with reference to company longevity ("for generations," "for over 119 years") or company size and reach:
--: a worldwide leader in retirement services
* Entrusted with more than US$200 billion in retirement assets
* Serving millions of retirement investors
* Administering thousands of 401(k) plans across America
* Employing more than 16,000 highly trained financial professionals worldwide
Competence was also calculable by performance charts for specific funds (1-, 5-, and 10-year yields). Specific performance claims or scenarios, however,
always necessitated fine-print disclaimers that past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Competence also inhered in company personnel: "trained," "registered," "disciplined" who can be "partners" and "friends, working for you." "95% of our clients stay with us year to year: And 9 out of 10 would recommend us to their friends." Company cultures were claimed to match the nature of particular services: "stock picking fanatics" for a competitive fund and "stable, team management" for a conservative one. The company logo, a feature of every ad, was sometimes used to shelter, shadow, tower over, and frame the models. This is a technique that equates the model with the company and suggests further that the reader, too, "fits into" the company (Goldman, 1992).
These ads are signs pointing to expertise, which is the intangible for sale by all of these companies. Rock solid and solicitous of individual needs, that expertise predicts positive financial results for the buyer.
3.3. Images of retirement
Of the 48 ads in our sample, 31 (two thirds) conveyed no image or idea of retirement in text or illustrations. Thus, the majority did not detail what one is saving, investing, and planning for, even as they encouraged such behavior as crucial and necessary. This is significant because it underscores the life-course givenness of retirement -- a matter of how, not if or when. So familiar are readers with the eventuality of retirement that advertisers can assume readers well know the purpose for the investments and services. In this, financial planning ads, like other advertising in a sophisticated consumer culture, need not describe the functional use of the product. Thus, ads leave things unspoken about retired life that a reader is left to supply from his or her understanding.
The 17 ads that did say or show something about the nature of retirement conveyed two basic ideas: retirees are consumers of decidedly active leisure, and retirement requires financial security. This may be content that the other 31 ads assume a reader already knows. These are not surprising themes, but they are selective, as we will point out in later discussion.
When it is shown, the leisure of retirement is active and healthy, so depicted by models fishing, surfing, water skiing, on a swing, on a bike, as volunteer carpenters, chasing penguins, or leaping in the air. Ad texts said that retirees have "fun," "fuller, more active lives," and "lust for life." They "play" during "a second childhood," being "whatever your cholesterol-free, fully aerobicized, ever-loving heart desires." In addition to the models' poses, some ad texts described examples of lifestyles:
Someday I plan to: Go to film school. Shop flea markets in Paris. Get my piano tuned. Finish a marathon (in under six hours). [Retirement is] finishing law school or turning your genius for the perfect omelet into a corner cafe. [Retirement is] putting the finishing touches on a book of poems. Tutoring underprivileged kids. Learning the tango.
Save for two mentions about volunteering in these 17 ads, the leisure of retirement is turned toward self and sometimes family.
The leisure of retirement is also discontinuous with the present. The suggestions for retired lifetyles seem to appeal to a playful, adventurous self whose emergence has been deferred by the strictures of a work and family career, by the reader's selfsame disciplined side that has been responsibly putting the nest egg away. The contrast between the dutiful worker and the liberated retiree was explicitly drawn when one ad said: "Retirement. Now its your turn." And: "I've spent 40 years building a nest egg. 30 years paying off a mortgage. 20 years saving for college. I've WORRIED enough. Now I want to LIVE." The freedom, release, and possibility of retirement were also signaled by the ads' reference to retirement "dreams" and the placement of models with open sky above them or near expanses of water.
Mixed in with the image of self-indulgent, dreamed-of leisure was a second and more sober theme about the financial security necessary for retirement. "Forget retirement -- We're talking about a second childhood. (This time make sure you get a big allowance.)" Text or pictures about retirement leisure were accompanied by messages about the financial requirements for these lifestyles: "Do you have the financial security to choose your own path? ... Retire on your own terms." Models in ads from two different advertisers were said to have a half-million dollars upon retirement. Not only is it crucial to have money (and therefore "control" retirement), the money also needs to last. So some ads promoted "a long and secure retirement income" or "helping affluent seniors preserve something as important as their health, their wealth." Two ads, both showing models of retired couples, raised a problem premise not about the accumulation of assets, but about their preservation. From one: "We know the last thing you need are funds that keep you up at night. You can't afford to take undue risks with your nest egg. But you still need to keep it growing."
3.4. Closing the argument
Having hailed the reader as someone with financial advantages, worthy traits, and certain to retire, the ads still had to establish the need for the company's services. They did so with problem premises. In some ads, the problem was external. For example, there had been recent changes in tax law or a tax deadline was approaching. In 1998, new tax rules created an end-of-year deadline for conversion of one type of IRA to another, and this was the topic of a number of ads: "Confused? You needn't worry." Another external problem was the volatility or riskiness of financial markets that an investor is unable to control. "Your assets rise and fall with the markets. You want to retire sooner, not later. Maybe we should talk." One ad was premised on new developments in longevity: "With all of the advancements in modern medicine and exercise, there's a good chance that you will live longer and healthier than any of your ancestors. Start planning for it now."
The problem premise could also be internal, appealing to readers' anxiety about their diligence in money management -- "are you doing enough?" "Whether you see retirement as a chance to volunteer your time, or your time to relax, how do you know you've saved enough?" Or: "You have a lot riding on the future ... A successful retirement takes a lifetime of hard work. But is your portfolio working just as hard to make the most of all you've saved?" Or: "Do you have the financial security to choose your own path? Do more." Only two ads undertook direct warnings about the perils of improvidence. One showed a snapshot of a sheepish husband and his alarmed wife with the caption: "And this is the time Dad told Mom that they couldn't afford to retire. Don't let this happen to you." The other showed a sleeping Rip Van Winkle: "If you don't have a strategy for retirement, consider this a wake-up call."
These elements (external problems and doubts about one's diligence), along with the appearance of arcane, technical terms, insinuate that financial planning for retirement is a difficult task. Specific investment devices were rarely advertised as the solution. Rather, what is needed is a financial plan that has been custom-tailored by "investment professionals." The acknowledged complexity of retirement planning was conveyed in numerous assurances that the company's intervention will simplify the investor's task (bottom of Table 1). These promises of simplicity, ease, and clarity imply that readers, no matter how sophisticated or successful, should still feel that they need help. The services will not only generate wealth, they are the means for managing the complexity and uncertainty that cloud the financial route to retirement, the unknowns of personal finance and the unknowable future.
Themes about retirement and management of complexity converge in a three-part message: (1) retirement should be a state of freedom and leisure for personal pursuits; (2) financial security is the means to that state; and (3) our services are the means to financial security. (In ads with no image of retirement, a reader is left to impute the first part.) Two complete expressions of this message went as follows.
Lately, there's been a wonderful shift in perspective about retirement. Instead of looking at it simply as an end to work, people have begun to see it as a beginning of play. Of course, that takes financial security. And planning. Which is why you should consider -- Blue Chip Fund. No more boss, no more schedule, no more meetings. Just time. Time for your hobbies, the grandkids, and the backyard hammock. Or, maybe that romantic trip to Venice you've always dreamed about. But dreams remain only dreams without a solid plan for retirement income. You need a retirement partner like -- to help turn your dreams into reality.
What is explicit in these passages and implicit across the others is the intention to link something the reader wants -- to be happily, comfortably retired, or to think oneself on the way -- with a specific seller. Retirement thus is identified with the seller; the seller stands for retirement.
3.5. Comparison to 1988
We combed 1988 issues of the same five magazines for similar advertisements: ones with some reference to retirement financial planning and addressed to individual consumers, not employers. What we found were far fewer ads, and these had limited content: 12 ads from 9 companies and these in only two magazines, Forbes and Money. Ten ads promoted mutual funds as instruments for one's Individual Retirement Account, one sold a financial planning video, and one showcased a retirement planning magazine. Except for the last item, references to retirement as a stage of life were minimal, nor did the ads feature models of workers or retirees for readers' imagined selves. Ad texts emphasized fund performance and company competence. The one thread of thematic continuity with 1997-1998 was three mentions about a "financially secure retirement." From this brief review, we conclude that the marketing of retirement planning has advanced considerably in the last 10 years.
The 48 ads we examined used pictures and texts to rehearse the physical, moral, and financial attributes of idealized customers. People who read themselves into these ads could imagine retirement planners to be self-reliant individuals -- mostly male -- whose mastery of financial management, while commendable, was somehow incomplete. The goal of the ads was to motivate readers to purchase intangible services that would master the anxiety and complexity of retirement preparation. Placing oneself in the ad and ceding confidence in the company, readers could sew in ideas of retirement to conclude that the company is the means to financial security, and that financial security is the means to the emancipation and self-fulfillment of retirement.
In these financial planning ads, the characterization of retirement should be familiar to most readers. Active lifestyles, release, and self-development -- this has all been fundamental cultural content about retirement for the last few decades (Featherstone & Hepworth, 1995; Savishinsky, 2000). As has the need for financial security. In a recent national survey, members of the Baby Boom cohort were asked to name first thing that comes to mind when they think of retirement. "Having enough money/financial security" was the top response to this open-ended question (AARP, 1999).
Behind this characterization, however, there is another, unspoken view of retirement. It functions as a presumed body of knowledge, a referent system, that readers use to give the ad content its meaning (Williamson, 1978). The unspoken view is that, without savings initiative, retirement means limits, insecurity, and lack of control. This retirement is a given: its specter prompts unease about adequate preparation; it holds small opportunity for consumption and self-development; and it is the lot of people not shown in the ads. Whether ads had an image of retirement or not, they depended for their completion on readers' anterior apprehension about an unplanned retirement.
Reminding readers about the retirement that they would not want is just one way that a structure of meaning proceeded from these ads. When advertisers showed positive content, even if familiar, they reworked it in particular ways. We note four. First, the style of retirement depicted here looks like it has a wealth threshold that takes special effort to attain. In pitching their services to a segment of the adult market with a large amount of money to invest, these companies make it appear that only the affluent retire in a satisfactory way. Second, the ads draw a strong contrast between work life and retired life -- work hard now, play later. For all the attention to the increasing indeterminacy of the retirement transition (Han & Moen, 1999) and to the desirability of life that integrates labor and leisure (Riley & Riley, 1994), the idealized life course of these ads holds work and retirement in tight, separate compartments. Retirement planning is adulthood's great project of deferred gratification.
Third, retirement is attained by individual effort, by sovereign selves who are agents of their own life course (Meyer, 1986). Readers are morally enjoined to personal responsibility in retirement planning, sometimes with an edge of anxiety about "doing enough." Retirement planners are most often pictured as single males who are proactive about the future. The evocation of the self-reliant individual is all the more significant because not one of these ads made any mention of Social Security. These 48 different presentations on retirement planning and security were carried off without reference to the program that will eventually guarantee the preferred audience for these ads a baseline, irreducible retirement income that could exceed US$20,000 a year. When the existence of Social Security is placed outside the frame of retirement planning, as it was here, there can be implications for the politics of public vs. private mechanisms for retirement saving. Citizens will be that less likely to place confidence in pension arrangements that are devalued or invisible to them, but more likely to celebrate what their own efforts might achieve (see AARP, 1999; Employee Benefit Research Institute, 1999; National Public Radio, 1999).
Fourth, retirement is not old age. Every retired model is hale and healthy, enjoying selected moments of the release of retirement. No model faces the situation for which one would really need financial reserves, especially medical expenses, long-term care, or a survivor's income. In linking preretirement saving solely to later leisure consumption, the ads perpetuate the taboo against deep old age that has been born of the emphasis on positive aging (Cole, 1992). Blaikie (1999) notes a "tragic irony" in the staging of later life into sequential categories. While the young-old stage "suggests an emancipatory view of retirement as adult life without the responsibilities of career and children, this has been achieved only by socially suppressing the darker side of retirement as death's ante-chamber" (p. 77). At the same time, we suspect that readers will understand that retirement wealth will gird them for later encounters with the unmentioned contingencies of old age.
Having shown retirement as a desirable, hard-earned suspension of time between work and the frailty that heralds death, the companies who place the ads sell the means to that state. Odd as it sounds, use of these means to "save" for retirement is a form of consumption. Consumers place their money with a company in order to buy (through fees and commissions) intangible services that promise -- but not guarantee -- asset growth. While losses are possible, what advertisers are selling is the hope of monetary gain.
Moreover, this form of consumption is attractive because it predicts a rationalized life course, both as to pathway and outcome. Ritzer (1998) argues that consumers have come to value systems that offer efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control. These principles are evident in ads for retirement financial planning and in two ways. First, the vagaries of retirement (e.g., its timing and the specter of illness) do not daunt the person with sufficient wealth. Come what may, financial security assures you the retirement that you want. Second, the companies' advice and investment instruments are vehicles that simplify participation in financial markets. These ads presume readers' confusion and their desire for standardized investment devices. The technical task of tracking and picking stocks, for example, can be reduced to the selection of a mutual fund; the selection of a mutual fund can be simplified with professional advice. In fact, the ultimate commodity here is rationality of a remote and proximate kind -- an eventual retirement that is controllable, and a financial path to that state that is routine and orderly.
The financial services industry is not the only commercial or institutional source attempting to create meaning about retirement. Real estate developers, for example, promote a retirement idea that entails migration (McHugh, 2000). The federal government's Retired Senior Volunteer Program promotes retirement and service. Elderhostel promotes retirement and learning. These sources, however, address retirees and near-retirees, whereas investment businesses have a special need to direct retirement messages to adults of all ages, even young adults. One can argue, that however the industry portrays retirement, those portrayals will be broadcast more widely than others, even if the market segment is narrow.
Are people affected by these ads? Public skepticism of advertising is now so far advanced that it has spawned the entire genre of ironic anti-ads that incoporate and utilize that very skepticism. The financial companies can evaluate the success of these ads by counting the inquiries and sales that they generate. Sales, however, are too stringent a test of their cultural effect and influence. Readers could discount specific performance claims, but still believe in the industry's expertise. Readers could decline to "start saving now," but resolve to do so later. Exotic travel and expensive hobbies may not be one's idea of retirement, but financial peace of mind may be a goal that the ads affirm and deepen. The moral appeal to personal responsibility and self-reliance could shape political preferences.
In this paper, we have reviewed a selection of print ads from a fixed time. In the future, the content of ads for retirement financial planning may expand to integrate matters that we found absent in 1997 and 1998, topics such as Social Security or working women. No matter what the market segments or referent systems are, financial planning ads will continue to offer ideas about what retirement should be and how to bridge the uncertain present with a secure future. There is a potential danger in selling this control of retirement. Goldman (1992) writes that "advertisers have unintentionally contributed to an overburdening of the family by promoting impossible expectations of it as a private, conflict-free haven within which to achieve social and individual fulfillment" (p. 104). Likewise, in setting high standards for a satisfactory retirement, financial planning advertisements may create expectations about this stage of life, nurtured over decades, that are easily disappointed.
The authors wish to acknowledge helpful comments from Robert Antonio, Jennifer Hackney, and Carol Warren. This investigation was supported by the University of Kansas General Research Fund.
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David J. Ekerdt(*), Evelyn Clark
Gerontology Center, University of Kansas, 3050 Dole Building, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA
(*) Corresponding author.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (D.J. Ekerdt)
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|Author:||Ekerdt, David J.; Clark, Evelyn|
|Publication:||Journal of Aging Studies|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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